"Is the Third Book Phenomenon Real?"

The tortoise was on to something.
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Dear Milo,

Is it true that writers don’t make it big until their third book? I don’t know where I heard this.


Curious in Chicago

Dear Curious in Chicago,

It’s funny you say that you don’t know where you’ve heard that because I’ve heard the same thing and have no idea where I got it, either. But the third book phenomenon is an idea that’s floated around writerly circles for many years now.

For anyone unfamiliar, the third book phenomenon is the concept that writers don’t become successful until (or will be successful by) their third book. We’re talking runaway hits, prestigious awards, rave reviews, millions of copies sold, household names, the whole bit. Or at least some portion of the bit.

My guess is this concept stems from a more logical version. To a certain extent, it’s true that you may start to gain recognition around your junior book. You may also start to gain some level of profit. However, these aren’t necessarily due to a phenomenon with the book itself, but rather 1) the repetition of your name entering the market with new material, marking you as a writer who intends to stick around for the long haul, and 2) the release of a new book tends to bump sales of the writer’s previous books. Adding those royalties together over three books, you may find yourself finally able to quit a part-time job (or for a lucky few, a full-time job). With each book you publish, you likely inch that much closer to writing as your main career. Not because of some vague phenomenon, but because of the cumulative effect.